After a baby elephant was found shot dead in Mondulkiri province’s Koh Nhek district on January 26, fuelling concerns about ongoing threats to the country’s endangered elephant population, authorities are stepping up patrols and working to identify the suspects.

Officials from the Mondulkiri Department of Environment confirmed the cause of death through an autopsy, revealing the calf had been killed in Sok San commune’s Chi Klop village by an unidentified poacher. This incident marks the first known death of a wild elephant in the remote northeastern province this year, highlighting the continued struggles in protecting these majestic creatures.

Subsequent to the elephant’s death, the provincial environment department has escalated patrols to prevent future incidents and is actively pursuing evidence to apprehend the perpetrators. Meanwhile, conservationists express outrage at the killing of wild elephants.

Department director Chhao Bunthoeun said that environmental officials have filed a case concerning the calf’s death but have not yet taken it to court due to insufficient evidence. Initially, experts anticipated finding a bullet during the autopsy, which would have been a crucial clue for identifying the perpetrators. However, no bullet was discovered, preventing a conclusive determination.

“Forensics confirmed a bullet wound in the juvenile elephant. We operated to retrieve the bullet, but it had passed through. Following the autopsy, the remains were buried on the grounds of the environment department,” he said.

Patrols increased, collaboration sought

Bunthoeun said that, following the incident, he tasked officials with increasing patrols regularly and improving relations with the community and local authorities to prevent similar problems affecting wild elephants’ lives. However, he also notes that this is the first instance of an elephant calf being fatally wounded in the province.

“Measures including increased patrols to track elephant movements and collaboration with the locals, authorities and partners to monitor and prevent future offences have been implemented,” he said.

Mondulkiri provincial deputy governor Cheak Mengheang said that on behalf of the authorities, he promptly addressed the death and urged all law enforcement agencies to locate and prosecute the perpetrators. 

However, the challenge lies in the fact that despite discovering a gunshot wound on the elephant’s body during the examination, the bullet itself was not recovered, leading to a delay in resolving the case until the perpetrator is identified.

“The search for suspects continues. We haven’t abandoned this work, despite the initial lack of results. In fact, we’ve deployed personnel to comb the area for clues,” he said.

Chenda Clais, president of the Airavata Elephant Foundation, condemns the killing of the baby elephant as a “heinous act” that cannot be tolerated. A passionate advocate for elephant conservation, she highlights the rarity of such births, emphasising the lengthy gestation period of Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) – 18 to 22 months – and the typical four to five year interval between calves for wild elephants.

The species is listed as endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.

While acknowledging ongoing conservation efforts, she expresses concern about their limitations. Public apathy, she argues, fuels the continued hunting, trapping and killing of elephants and other wildlife.

Collective responsibility

“A large number of people and some hunters do not consider the interests of wild elephants, do not consider the interests of wildlife conservation, they only think of immediate benefits. Thus, there is an impact on projects and strategies for wildlife conservation,” Clais said.

Mentioning the importance of elephants, she declares them as the tangible heritage of Cambodia. The care of these regal giants not only aids in preserving the forest and its wildlife but also brings various benefits. Nevertheless, she noted that the task of caring for elephants cannot be shouldered by a single institution or individual; it demands collective participation from all.

“Conservation of wild elephants is highly beneficial; it extends protection and preservation to all biodiversity, encompassing trees, forests, plants and wildlife of all sizes,” she said.

World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Cambodia country director Seng Teak joined in mourning the loss of the endangered elephant calf, condemning the perpetrators and urging citizens to report all wildlife crimes to authorities to protect the Kingdom’s natural heritage for future generations.

Environment ministry spokesperson Khvay Atiya said that the deceased elephant was approximately seven months old and weighed 200kg. This marked the sixth elephant fatality in Cambodia since 2018.

He did not specify the cause of death for the other five elephants but noted that most deaths result from natural causes, human encounters and snaring.

Reforestation takes root

A joint census by the ministry and partners found an estimated 400-600 wild elephants in the country, mostly inhabiting the Cardamom Mountains, Mondulkiri and the Prey Lang protected area spanning Kampong Thom, Preah Vihear, Kratie and Stung Treng provinces.

Atiya also mentioned that the ministry has implemented strict measures to prevent further losses of elephants by targeting perpetrators of wildlife killings and deforestation. 

Additionally, the ministry collaborates with local authorities to combat natural resource crimes, and they are actively promoting reforestation efforts. To date, the ministry has planted over 700,000 seedlings and plans to distribute one million trees annually to the public free of charge for planting.

“Reaching the crucial 2050 target of boosting forest cover by 60 per cent, a cornerstone of the government’s Pentagonal Strategy, demands a strategic focus on extensive tree-planting initiatives. This is instrumental in achieving our environmental goals and ensuring a sustainable future,” he said. 

Atiya stated that the ministry’s 10-year action plan (2020-2029) for Asian elephant conservation is progressing well. It tackles key areas: reducing habitat loss, reconnecting corridors and herds, strengthening anti-poaching laws, mitigating human-elephant conflict and enhancing public awareness, research and regular population monitoring.

He underscored nationwide implementation with partner collaboration, urging joint technical, technological and financial support.

“We’ve observed ongoing wild elephant protection efforts, including firsthand instances of herds entering villages and passing near bases,” he said.

Asian elephant numbers have plummeted by 50 per cent globally in the past 60-70 years, alongside a staggering 90 per cent habitat loss. Today, only 39,463 to 47,427 survive, mainly in Indian and Sri Lankan forests.